Saturday, 9 March 2013

The High Sierra

There is an extremely evocative passage just over a page in length on pp. 110-111 of Poul Anderson's World Without Stars (New York, 1966). It is very difficult to quote any of it without wanting to quote all of it. It is impossible to find any sentence or two that are the core of the passage. They are all core.

First, Hugh Valland, nearly three thousand years old, remembers being young.

" 'Oh Lord, but we were young!' " (p. 111)

He refers to himself and Mary O'Meara.

Secondly, they were young at a very special time. Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, "Bliss was it to be alive that day, and to be young was very heaven." Valland and Mary were young when it was known that the antithanatic would "'...soon be in production.'" (p. 110) Thus, they were at the dawn of a biological revolution that would affect everyone. " 'Nobody who was alive would have to grow old.' " (p. 110) There would be no more fear of old age. Valland spells this out by contrasting a child like Argens' young daughter with a pre-antithanatic grandmother. The former would eventually become the latter " ' less'n a century...'" (p. 110)

Thirdly, he tells us how the whole world population was responding to this imminent change. " 'The world had grown so quiet.' " (p. 110) Partly, people became cautious now having so much to lose and, partly, they just " '...needed a while to get used to the idea.' " (p. 110)

" 'It was an air...while the human race waited, it felt kind of like wakin' after a fever had broken.' " (p. 110)

Having described people who have become used to their immortality, Anderson now asks us to imagine those who were waiting for it.

Fourthly, though, Valland and Mary, being young, " '...couldn't sit still...' " (pp. 110-111) They had to do something to prove to themselves that they " '...were alive enough to rate immortality...' " so they backpacked in the High Sierras (p. 111). Valland explains to Argens that this was a mountainous region partly "'...kept as wilderness.'" (p. 110)

Fifthly, moreover, they did it to remember those who had loved the Sierras but had died and would never come back.

" 'We swore to each other we'd always remember our dead.' " (p. 111)

As we learn later, that is what he is doing for her. She died aged nineteen.

Sixthly, he recalls that most people eventually agreed with him and Mary that immortality would be useless if it just meant centuries of " '...bein' careful...' " so they " '...went to the stars.'" (p. 111)

And that ties in with Earth being quiet and depopulated in the concluding chapter.

I have tried not to quote too much but every short quotation has been apt and my attempted summary is about as long as the passage that I set out to summarise.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

I remember the passage you've been quoting and commenting on. And I agree that just being careful is not the right way to live out an indefinitely extended life span.

Also, I've wondered exactly how Mary O'Meara died. Was it because of an accident during the trip she and Hugh Valland took to the High Sierras? We don't know!

Got my copy of NESFA Press' DOOR TO ANYWHERE, Vol. 5 of THE COLLECTED SHORT WORKS OF POUL ANDERSON. I'm esp. curious about "The White King's War," the core of what became A CIRCUS OF HELLS.


Paul Shackley said...

Mary died very young so, if it wasn't in the Sierra, then it must have been very soon afterwards.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

Yes, Mary O'Meara most likely died either in the High Sierra or very soon after the trip she and Hugh Valland took there.

I still remember what a surprise, even a shock, the end of WORLD WITHOUT STARS was to me the first time I read it. Poul Anderson was very skilled in writing unexpected, even shocking endings to his stories and novels. A few examples being "The Martyr," "Eutopia," and the NIGHT FACE.

I think some commentators have even wondered about the SANITY of Hugh Valland. I mean was it SANE of Valland to remain as celibate as a Catholic priest for nearly 3000 years when he must have met many fine and good women and was free to marry one of them? There were a few hints earlier in the book when Felipe Argens was puzzled by Valland's seemingly extreme devotion to Mary.

There was a time when I regretted how SHORT some of Anderson's best novels were. That is, he wrote so well that I wished those books had been longer. Examples being THE HIGH CRUSADE, A CIRCUS OF HELLS, THE REBEL WORLDS, etc. But I later realized Anderson packed so much into his books that they did not NEED to be long.

Not that Anderson could not write long books. He certainly could! Examples being the four volume KING OF YS and the "Harvest of Stars" books.